Nisrin Elamin, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and a Sudanese citizen who holds a green card, boarded a plane back to the U.S. soon after news of the executive order was leaked by various sources. But Elamin missed her connecting flight. By the time she landed last Friday, Trump’s executive order banning the entry of nationals from seven Muslim majority countries was already implemented, and she was detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport for five hours.
The swift implementation of the executive order left thousands of visitors with valid visas and legal permanent residents—people who hold green cards—like Elamin stranded in airports around the world. Some were pulled off of flights before they arrived in the US. Many were traveling for work, on vacation, or for family emergencies. No one expected such a xenophobic and racist policy. Or, at least, not with such speed.
The ban created chaos from inception to implementation. Benjamin Wittes, editor-in-chief of the Lawfare Blog, wrote, “the malevolence of President Trump’s executive order on visas and refugees is mitigated chiefly—and perhaps only—by the astonishing incompetence of its drafting and construction.”
Reports have so far shown that the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Justice, and State, in addition to the Office of Legal Counsel, received neither a briefing nor the opportunity to provide input. Instead, the offices were informed of the order only after details had been finalized. Refusing standard protocol, the administration also prevented National Security Council (NSC) lawyers from evaluating the legality of the order.
One of the major oversights in the order is the lack of coordination with the officials who were tasked with the work of enforcing it. Tens of thousands of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents received no instructions for implementing such a major shift in immigration policy. Originally, DHS ruled before the order was released that green card holders should be exempt, but various news outlets reported that Trump and his two close advisors, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, ignored this ruling. Rather, they chose to grant CBP agents the power to allow entry for green card holders at their own discretion. Agents detained people or began deporting them without even the semblance of due process. What ensued was a flood of personal narratives in the media of people detained in handcuffs, families that were separated, and privacy rights that were violated.
In an interview on January 30, Elamin told Democracy Now! she experienced “a very uncomfortable pat-down. I was touched in my chest and groin area. And then I was handcuffed briefly.” Dr. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), stated in an interview with MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid that those who were detained “explained for instance, they were interrogated, handcuffed, asked to show their Twitter feeds, their Instagram, their social media. They were also asked questions about what they think about Donald Trump.” Many of the detainees did not know their rights when providing sensitive information, while others had limited English skills. How long people were kept and in what way, how thoroughly they were questioned or whether they were immediately deported, showed no clear pattern of detainment and no clear orders to agents. Elamin said that agents removed her handcuffs only after realizing that the Iranian green card holder detained in the same room was not handcuffed.
Speaking to, Democracy Now! explained, “I do think that the Somalis and Sudanese, people of African descent who are going to be affected by this, you know, I think they’re going to be treated differently, frankly.” Elamin’s interview points out what has been made clear so far in the immigration ban, that it, like many other of Trump’s policies, operates off several oppressive systems, particularly xenophobia and racism. Recognizing that her status as a Stanford Ph.D. candidate and Harvard graduate complicated the nature of her detainment in comparison to other Sudanese detainees. Elamin said “I was probably treated much better than other people, partly because of my affiliation with Stanford.” In contrast, a Sudanese man in his seventies was kept for 30 hours, compared to Elamin’s five.
Resistance to these detainments, however, was swift. Organizers created Google forms asking for volunteer immigration lawyers as well as Arabic and Persian interpreters; the forms were filled to capacity in just a few hours. Images of immigration lawyers swamped with laptops, coffee, and drafts of habeas corpus petitions flooded social media feeds. Protests erupted at JFK’s Terminal 4, where authorities detained travelers, and at other airports including California’s LAX and SFO. Late Saturday, the ACLU won a temporary injunction against the deportation of anyone detained in an airport.
Not even children have been spared from the abuses of Trump’s order. In an interview with AM Joy, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told the story of a five-year-old American citizen detained for more than 4 hours at Washington-Dulles airport with his aunt, a legal permanent resident who obtained asylum from Iran years ago. Van Hollen’s office had alerted authorities hours before the two landed, but the two were still held in custody upon arrival.
Meanwhile, tragedy stemming from the xenophobic policy has occurred in the lives of Rhode Islanders with backgrounds targeted by Trump. A physician at Rhode Island Hospital, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Independent she has to cancel plans to travel back to Sweden in March for Iranian New Year and her father’s surgery. She moved with her family to Sweden from Iran when she was three years old. Now, her parents cannot travel to the U.S. either, and she remains uncertain of when they will be able to reunite.
Larger political conflicts complicated the treatment of some foreign nationals. As days went on, the response to the illegal detainment of some gathered more support than of others.
Iranians in particular have a long history as immigrants in the United States, comprising a large and mostly successful diaspora community. Recent immigrants, on the other hand, are usually dissidents fleeing political and religious persecution, and even more seeking refugee resettlement from war-torn countries. On MSNBC’s AM Joy, terrorism analyst Malcolm Nance stated that “most people from those nations that would be flying to the United States would be green card holders or wealthy people who have been vetted for a long time to get passports, particularly Iraqis.”
A large portion of those affected by the ban are people connected to American academic institutions. Iranians, according to a 2015 State Department report, make up 48 percent of visas, while Iranians also compose the largest portion of foreign academics. Having the academy’s support changes how you’re treated. Mohammad Ali Kadivar, a post-doctoral fellow at Brown University, told the Independent, “I’m not in a good situation, but I can imagine there are thousands of students and non-students affected by this ban.” While academics can often lean on the support of their institutions, others are left at the mercy of Customs and Border Patrol.
Uncertainty is rife. No one is sure how long this ban will be extended beyond its allotted 90 days. Highlighting the difference of institutional support, Kadivar told the Independent, “it is very unclear what is going to happen to “students’ PhD’s. They may just lose their chance to continue and finish their [degree].” Kadivar has already cancelled attending two academic conferences, and is unsure whether he will be able to continue his field work in Tunisia. But he recognizes the privileges of the academy and that “there are people in more pain, they are suffering more, and they are getting hurt even worse.”
The extent of human suffering cannot be quantified or compared in this situation. The trauma of arrest, however temporary, may stay with someone for a long time. And the uncertainty of a visa’s arrival, which can take a decade, has expanded indefinitely. Payesteh told the Independent, “we definitely have to channel that action into encouraging congress to undo the ban.” A Congressional bill to overturn the executive order will need Republican support to pass, which seems unlikely. The Republicans in Congress are overwhelmingly silent. To Payesteh, the silver lining is “everyone comes out and they’re ready to work.”
ROKSANA BORZOUEI B’17 wonders when she’ll be able to see her grandparents next.